First I'm going to sing you a ditty -
Rural fun and frolics
Topic TSCD 657
This volume of Topic's cracking series of CDs is intended to show 'the lighter side of traditional music making and dancing' - in other words, this is the stuff from the pub, the party, after work; the stuff to raise the spirits. Context is all, then. What may seem amusing in good company and after a few drinks can fall flat as a pancake in the cold light of day and/or in my CD player. I am happy to report, therefore, that, with one or two inevitable exceptions, the material on offer here still works pretty well out of context. While not raising the belly laugh of the pub performance, the inherent humour of most of the vocal material remains apparent.
About two thirds of the material here was recorded in the homes of the performers and only six in a pub or at a social gathering. It is these six recordings that really stand out. Tommy McGrath (assisted by his daughter and audience on the chorus) sings Burke's Engine, an amusing encounter between an innocent traveller and an army of boarding house fleas (sound clip). (Incidentally, I know a different version of this song - The Kilkenny Louse House - which I got from Fred MacKay - the same song, the same words, the same events, but somehow totally different.) McGrath is a strong and rhythmic singer and the song is a little gem and he gets a roar of approval from the crowd in the pub. However, at the song's end, I must confess to not being really sure exactly what Burke's Engine actually is! Reg Hall's notes tell us that the house parties at which people like Tommy used to play and sing were no more by the time of this recording, which was done in 1965 at Haughton's pub in Ross, Co Waterford, where the old crowd used to gather. Reg's excellent brief biography of Tommy sets him firmly within his community - an active participant in community life and not just musically. As a contrast, recorded at the same session was a man only remembered as Maurice. Apparently, two people who were regulars in the pub at that time are now unable to remember him and Reg Hall (who did the recording with Jimmy Power) is unable to provide any information on him. He is a man of mystery and his song, A Nice Piece of Irish Pig's Head, is a thing of mystery too. Is it music hall? It has some classic lines in it - "The frog is the dish of the Frenchman"(!) - and he sings it quietly into the microphone amid much shushing from the tables around (sound clip).
Jim Wilson and Charlie Wills are two Englishmen recorded in pubs. Wilson, a railway worker in Sussex, was brought to the attention of the collector Ken Stubbs by that fine singer, Pop Maynard and, judging by this performance, was a lively performer in the George Spicer mould. As for the song - The Keyhole in the Door - this is a rather tame version. Sheila Stewart has an interesting verse in which (unless my ears were deceiving me) the narrator's member is sore following insertion into the eponymous orifice. No such stuff here - just excitement over a bit of illicit striptease, but sung with gusto and obviously appreciated. Charlie Wills' performance of Up to the Rigs of London Town - in which a country lad in the big city turns the tables on a money-grabbing prostitute - is one of great vigour from a man of 79. He relishes each word and so does his audience, who are clearly enjoying every minute.
The piece de resistance of this collection is Martin Gorman, recorded in 1966 by Reg Hall in the clubroom at the Fox, Islington Green. The song is Old King Cole, this version being about coalmen, fiddlers, painters, tailors and jugglers. This is one of several cumulative songs on the CD and the most joyous. The build up is wonderful - hardly a laugh at the beginning, by the time he reaches the end of verse five, his audience is rolling about. I wish we could see him performing this - I wonder what actions went with "Have a bag of rump, bag of rump, said the coalman", not to mention "shove it in and out, in and out said the tailor". The crowd (including, audibly, Reg Hall himself) goes wild at the end. In this track, we are in good company with a pint and a good singer putting over a song well and thoroughly in control.
I am not, I must admit, usually a fan of the cumulative song, but only one out of the remaining three examples really leaves me cold and that's Most Beautiful Leg of the Mallard sung, I admit, rather well by Henry Mitchelmore. I just find this song overlong and dull. I must confess, though, that I rather like Tom Brown and his Widdlecombe Fair (not Widdecombe Fair - no Tom Pearce, Philly Winkpot or ghosts of horses here), although I suspect there is a ruder version somewhere. Johnny Doughty sings Herring's Head with his customary gusto - as good as a live performance this.
All the songs in this collection, bar one, have choruses. The exception is Maurice and his pig's head, and that has a tag line. I miss the audience participation on some of the tracks here. Sometimes the crowd is sorely needed. John MacDonald sings The Ball o' Kerriemeer and, here, it is woefully unfunny. I am sure a live performance would have improved matters a little although I have never heard a funny-things-happening-to-guests-at-a-ball song that struck me as amusing. It occurs to me that the words to such a song as this were probably changed to include members of the company at the time of each performance of the song and therein would lie the humour. As it stands here, I'm afraid it loses me.
Pop Maynard sounds to me as if he sang better in the pub, where he would have his friends, his chorus and his pint. The same goes for Jimmy McBeath, although his performance here of You Canna Put it on to Sandy is robust enough and the song contains the best joke on the album. Maggie Murphy is a joy to hear singing her hit song Clinkin' o'er the Lea. And speaking of hits, we have Albert Richardson and The Old Sow, a best selling record of its day and a good pub novelty number to boot. It is a pity that, according to the notes, the BBC would not record him singing "These little pigs shit in the farmer's hat". Nora Cleary is clearly enjoying herself and delighting in the ruderies of The Codfish. John Reilly's The Rosin Box is one of those tinkers-mending-holes songs, all as rude as each other, although the chorus to this one, "With his rosin box and itchy pole, his hammer, knife and spoon / And his nipper-tipper handstick and his soldering-iron tool", takes some beating. I think I get the point! Mary Ann Carolan's Old Bob Ridley betrays its American origins with the line "left the darkies in the old plantation" and amusingly substitutes Swansea for Swanee. That leaves dear old Fred Jordan and I think one of the great pleasures of this series of CDs has been the recordings of Fred Jordan, all done in the mid '60s when Fred was in his prime. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a fan, but my goodness, wasn't he singing well in the '60s. I don't, however, think the choice here a particularly good one. Down the Road, a music hall song from the singing of Gus Elen, has a different chorus for each verse and is sung by Fred in such a way that rather precludes audience participation. I would have thought his hilarious Benefit Concert a more apt choice.
Interspersed with all these jolly songs are various tune sets. There are two sets from Scotland, both from 78s. Curly MacKay on piano accordion and Willie Kemp on jaw's harp (or trump) play a set of marches and a highland fling. Stirring stuff, and I'm a sucker for a well played jaw's harp. Will and Ian Powrie on accordeon and fiddle play in a very spare style, their two instruments blending together so well that occasionally one is unaware of the fiddle behind the accordeon. Of the Irish, Rose Murphy and Ellen Dwyer each play with a vigour and attention to detail that belie their years (Murphy was 78 at the time of recording). Paddy Breen first lilts the reel The Blue Meadow and then plays it on tin whistle, great performances both. Jim Donaghue and his son Seamus play The Pigeon on the Gate on tin whistle and tambourine - invigorating playing, Seamus being a particularly fine tambourine player. The English musicians are all quite distinctive: Bob Cann plays two of his local hornpipes in his customary lively and rhythmic style; Sam Bond on harmonica gives us Oh, the Hampshires do Like Duff a regimental march which, judging by the title should have some interesting words; Ned Pearson on fiddle plays two versions of The Varsoviana, rather stiffly introducing each; Scan Tester plays a typical Tester piece - a unique tune, not quite 32 bars and assured playing - I could listen to him all day (sound clip); Bampton Morris dance Banbury Bill to Jinky Wells' fiddling. Apparently, Jinky wrote Banbury Bill - well, I never knew that! All good sleeve notes should tell you something you don't already know.
Just a word of praise about the artists' biographies written by Reg Hall with help from other sources, often surviving family members. Throughout the twenty volumes of the series, they are brief and to the point, they set each artist perfectly within his or her community and there is never a mention of death. Not once. All these artists live on as long as we can hear their music. And the music on this volume of the series is mostly wonderful and worth it for Martin Gorman alone.
Dan Quinn - 11.7.99
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